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Papers Trail: Researchers Track Fate of Duplicate and Retracted Scientific Studies

Eternal vigilance? Scientific publishers have faced the question of what to do with problematic papers since the publication of one of the first technical journals by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society in 1666.

Wikimedia/Royal Society

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—This week, the International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication here is drawing researchers from around the world to discuss ways to “improve the quality and credibility of scientific peer review and publication.” Participants are also presenting new finds of the state of scientific publishing. ScienceInsider is attending and will be covering some of the more intriguing presentations. Today: a look at what happens to discredited and duplicate papers that are supposed to be retracted.

Retracted Papers Sometimes Aren’t

Two years ago, German anesthesiologist Joachim Boldt was found guilty of scientific misconduct. Eighteen journals pledged to retract a record 88 papers by Boldt that they’d published. What happened next?

At the congress, Martin Tramèr, editor-in-chief of the European Journal of Anaesthesiology and an anesthesiologist at Geneva University Hospitals in Switzerland, described how he and his colleagues traced the path of those 88 papers. (Tramèr’s journal was among those affected.) Along with Nadia Elia, associate editor of the journal, and Elizabeth Wager, a past chairperson of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) in the United Kingdom and now a consultant, they looked not only at whether all the papers were retracted (hint: they weren’t), but also how the journals pulled those they did.

Although Tramèr called the promise by the journal editors to retract every problem article “a remarkable thing,” what followed was somewhat less heartening. Nine of the 88 articles were never retracted—in two cases, Tramèr’s group learned, because the journals had fielded legal threats from Boldt’s co-authors. Of the rest, only five fulfilled the COPE criteria for retractions. In some cases the retraction was not freely available, or it was not linked to the full-text article in question. Some of the failures were subtle, such as a “Retracted” label stamped across the text that hid parts of it. And when it came to 11 articles, the journals apparently decided to wipe the slate clean; they deleted the text completely, leaving only the title visible. One editor said “data in retracted articles should not be preserved,” Tramèr said. That’s in sharp contrast to COPE’s recommendation that “retracted articles should not be removed” from journals.

Editors in the Boldt case—whom Tramèr jokingly referred to as “hobby editors,” because virtually all have day jobs—offered a range of explanations for the inconsistencies, claiming health problems, for example, or blaming their publishers. But the bottom line is that “it remains unclear who is responsible for checking that retractions are done properly,” Tramèr says.

Duplicate Publications Double Trouble

When it comes to misconduct, faking data tends to hog the limelight. But another insidious if less dramatic problem comes when the same article is published twice or even more often, researchers here reported.

“We wanted to see how many duplicate publications are actually retracted,” as they’re supposed to be, said Mario Malički of the University of Split in Croatia. With his mentor Ana Marušić and Ana Utrobičić, the group culled 1011 publications tagged as duplicates by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Crosschecking those with papers the journals had investigated and labeled as duplicates, they found 175 papers that had been published at least twice—some as a result of error on the journal’s part, and some through a fault of the author. (Others had had been either labeled incorrectly by the National Library of Medicine, or the journals in question were unaware their paper had been tagged.)

Even when the journals identified a duplicate publication, most of the time nothing happened, Malički reported. Only 23 of the 175 papers were retracted, a figure that baffles him. “Why don’t they retract it?” he wonders. “Should it be there? Should it cloud [the literature] when we do meta-analyses or searches?”

“I was a little surprised at” the low retraction rate, Wager says. Journal editors “are responsible for clearing up the mess.” Apparently, that hasn’t happened yet.